Kirk Cousins will be the Washington Redskins’ quarterback in 2016. Let’s just get that part out of the way and not confuse a mid-February contract dance with a take-it-or-leave-it type negotiation.
Where the sides are right now is where many franchise tag candidates tend to be in mid-February — at an impasse with neither side in any rush to cave because there’s no reason at this point on the calendar. The tag deadline is still 12 days away, and the start of free agency is another eight days behind that. There’s plenty of time for the sides to posture publicly and privately until an agreement is reached.
But as this plays out, it might be the Redskins, not Cousins, who will face more pressure to get a long-term deal done.
Think about it from Cousins’ standpoint. The worst possible situation for him in the short term is he’s a free agent able to explore his options in a league where about seven or eight teams currently have unsettled quarterback situations, depending on one’s definition of "unsettled." There’s even one right up the road from Washington in the Philadelphia Eagles, who would take Sam Bradford back but only at a much lower number than what he has had in mind since he arrived in Philly. If Cousins hits the market, he’ll quickly find a number of teams that would love to commit to a 4,166-yard passer as their new quarterback. Though it wouldn’t be at a rate the top quarterbacks in the game enjoy ($22 million as of this typing), the open market would help drive up Cousins’ price.
That scenario isn’t likely, though. Sources on both sides of this situation have indicated the Redskins intend to tag Cousins despite recent rumblings the tag isn’t a guarantee. Cousins then faces a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $20 million that’s fully guaranteed the moment he signs it. The ‘Skins could opt for a slightly lower number on the transition tag, though that would give them only the right to match an offer sheet and wouldn’t provide compensation if they let Cousins walk. Most observers around the league believe it’s franchise tag-or-bust for Washington and Cousins.
Why would anybody with that scenario as a fallback cave at this point?
The downside for Cousins is if he goes out this year and bombs against a schedule that looks tougher than the one Washington faced last season (two 2015 opponents made the postseason but six 2016 opponents made it). At that point, his future as a starter with the ‘Skins or elsewhere would be very much in question. But again, that would come after a nice payday on the tag plus all future earnings as a backup or in competition to start elsewhere.
In talking to a few people who know Cousins well, what is clear is he’s plenty fine with letting the Redskins tag him and potentially playing on it this year and next (to the tune of over $40 million total).
Cousins loves proving people wrong — remember, "You like that!" — and he has a lot of faith in himself, so in his mind, he’s working with that money as a guaranteed base to begin negotiations.
That means the ball is pretty much in the team’s court right now. Though no discussions are scheduled, the expectation is the sides will talk at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next week. But with sources saying there remains a big gap in negotiations, don’t expect a deal to be finalized there. Which brings us back to the March 1 tag deadline.
The Redskins don’t want to commit huge money to a quarterback with only one full season as a starter. That’s understandable.
But the team also has to weigh whether it wants to enter 2016 with a quarterback on a one-year deal. Typically, quarterbacks who get tagged only carry it temporarily before a team works out a long-term contract. Even Matt Cassel got a multi-year deal when the Patriots tagged him and then traded him to the Chiefs. Having Cousins play on a tag would be uncharted territory for Washington and it would also make the salary-cap hit tougher to handle as well, with all of the money hitting in one year instead of spreading out the amount into the future.
It’s a delicate negotiation, and it might very well take all the way until the next deadline in July to sign a franchise player to a long-term deal. But in a league where the franchise tag often limits a player’s ability to earn full market value, Cousins is one of the players who stands to benefit from it.
Don’t expect him to give up that leverage any time soon.